A Voice for Earth

Environmental and social justice and my personal experiences in the area.


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Three Documentaries That Shaped My 2015

When it comes to activism and doing my part to help the environment and curb my footprint on the Earth, I think 2015 marked the point at which posting articles to social media to raise awareness wasn’t enough anymore. Anyone sitting at home at a computer can do that and make no mistake, I continue to do that because although sometimes it can feel like you’re shouting in an echo chamber, preaching to the choir, it’s worth it to reach even a few people who’ve never considered these issues before and perhaps change their outlook a little.

Yet, increasingly, I’ve felt the need to take real action myself, to consider what I do on daily basis that I could tweak or stop to make my impact less. There are a number of things that influenced me onto this course in 2015, but perhaps none more than documentaries on the subject of how our activities are damaging the environment and risking our futures and those of the generations to come.

That way I’ve come to see it is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s so much potential for innovation and remediation of harm already done but between painfully slow, gridlocked politics and incessant corporate lobbying, they are not being implemented fast enough. So perhaps leadership on the issues facing us is not to be found with government or Big Business, it is within ourselves. It lies with us. Every person, everywhere, has the power to create some kind of positive change that taken together could shift the balance towards clean energy, better agricultural practices, protection of habitats and biodiversity, preserving air and water quality, and leaving a world with possibilities other than mere survival for our descendants.

In that spirit, I’ve laid out, in my opinion, the three best and most important documentaries of 2015, and how they influenced me to makes changes in my life currently and also in my plans for the future.

 

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Cowspiracy came out back in April. I knew the basic premise beforehand from the trailer and reading up on it prior to watching it. Simply put, animal agriculture, more than any other human activity, is devastating our planet. Nothing contributes more to climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, water depletion, species extinction, and ocean dead zones.

It’s one thing to hear that, it’s another to see it in images, in undeniable science and numbers. Feeding animals to feed us is remarkably inefficient, consuming fossil fuels, water, and arable land at an unsustainable rate, and the return on calories and nutrition is far less than if we actually ate the plants used to feed livestock.

This changed my whole outlook on issues of the environment, especially climate change. Everyone was so focused on fossil fuel burning and, of course, it is an important contributor to climate change, but it is merely a feed-in to the emissions total for animal agriculture, which by some estimates is responsible for over 50% of all emissions. On top of this, we have emissions of methane and CO2 coming directly from animals and destruction of carbon sinks to create more pastureland such as the deforestation of the Amazon.

What got to me even more was the fact that major environmental groups were largely ignoring the issues in favour of combating relatively softer targets like fracking or the tar sands, which are climate disasters in their own right, but tackling them seems to be a lot easier to swallow. As I said in a blog post I wrote after initially watching Cowspiracy, I think these groups underestimate the willingness of their members to combat these issues, but I can’t speak to whether or not they have other motivations to ignore this one in particular.

I think this documentary inspired my biggest personal change, the choice to become vegan. I’ve wavered about it before, having initially come across the subject in relation to the health benefits of a wholefood plant-based diet portrayed in Forks Over Knives. However, concern for my own personal well-being was only enough to get me to reduce my meat intake and cut eggs and dairy. However, having seen how much my dietary choices were flying in the face of my environmental concern, I made the choice to go fully vegan late last year.

The decrease in my carbon footprint, my water footprint, my use of arable land, grain, my contribution to deforestation, the tainting of our oceans with excess nutrients from animal waste, the lessening of animal suffering. Even if my contribution is small, that’s the point. A lot of people making this one decision could make a massive difference to the state of our planet.

I think it was one of the most influential documentaries of 2015, and I cannot wait to see what Kip Andersen, it’s creator, has in store with his follow-up documentary, What the Health, coming this year.

 

This Changes Everything

This Changes Everything was influential to me for one main reason, it verbalizes an idea that almost all people, especially in the West, have, but that we never really think about. It is the concept of Earth as machine and man its wielder. It is the idea that the Earth is an animal whose spirit must be broken and tamed, that we must and can become its masters. Everything it has to offer, all it can provide for us, can be exploited without limit and without consequence.

It is this plot that we have been following since the beginning of the industrial revolution, when fossil fuels allowed us to detach ourselves from the rhythms of nature. It was this supposed decoupling that gave us the notion that we humans are somehow apart from the rest of the biosphere, that our choices and actions could be carried out irrespective of Mother Nature and that any negative impacts would only affect the environment, not us, as if we live somewhere other than the environment.

We have crowned ourselves kings of the mountain and so have perpetuated an economic model based upon the concept of infinite growth on a finite planet. The only problem is that nature has caught up with us in the form of climate change, probably the biggest environmental problem to come back and bite us on the ass.

This documentary tells it how it is. Our consumerist culture, our free-for-all capitalistic system, has overshot the Earth’s ability to sustain it, and we are now in ecological debt that we sink into deeper every single year. We have a mammoth task on our hands if we want to change that. We not only have to turn our ship around, but we have to completely overhaul it so it sails causing the smallest wake possible.

The fossil fuel era is coming to a close. We can all see that, even those who are heavily invested in keeping it alive as long as possible. Climate change does change everything, but whether that change runs its course quickly or not, whether fossil fuels croak quickly or peter out with painful slowness is, once again, up to us.

In most cases, our governments have done a poor job at standing up to the fossil fuel industry and have even promoted it with the Obama administration’s support for fracking, and the Canadian government’s overwhelming support for the Alberta tar sands. At the moment, Big Energy is rowing our boat through their political oarsmen. Only we can wrest the oars back by making better energy choices.

I currently do not have my own home, and I drive a ’97 1.3 litre engine Toyata Starlet. I hope that once I get on my feet, and my energy and transport choices are in my own hands that I can afford to use renewable energy sources and purchase an electric car. For now, all I can do is not be wasteful with energy where I live, turning off lights and appliances not in use, minimising their use also, air-drying clothes, not leaving heating or the boiler going for longer than absolutely needed, walking if I can, and trying to consume as little as possible in terms of unnecessary purchases, or choosing digital media where possible rather than physical copies. In time, I hope to be free of fossil fuels completely and the consequences of their use.

 

Racing Extinction

As much as the other two documentaries had a great impact on me, I think Racing Extinction touches a more personal note. I think it’s because it’s one of the first I shared with my new wife and because of the impact it had on her. She’d told me before that the state of world makes her angry and when I asked her why, she said she believes the people of the world have both the intelligence and the technology available to fix what we have broken. However, from her point of view it didn’t seem like anyone could be bothered to do it, and this had left her feeling hopeless. I have to admit I often shared those feelings even if I did my best to stay positive.

However, as dire as the message of this documentary is, that we risk losing 50% of all species in the next hundred years, that we risk compromising the habitability of our world, that we are poised to cause a sixth mass extinction of life on Earth, that we have become the meteor with the power to change everything for the worse on our planet, and it comes down to our own inability to change with anything like the urgency needed to avert catastrophe, it still gave both of us hope. Why? Because despite all the negatives portrayed in this documentary, it was moving for both of us to see so many who do care and who are working to save our world.

Having watched it, my wife said she found it moving, and it had taken her from a state of pessimism about our world to one of cautious optimism, and it encouraged her to watch the documentaries above, including Cowspiracy which she laughed at every time she heard the name because it sounded silly but has now actually become her favourite.

If it showed me anything, it is that other people do care, a lot of them, and they are willing to take bold actions to force change if they have to. It is knowing you are not alone when it comes to wanting to protect the only home we have, to protect something that was billions of years in the making and is irreplaceable.

Together, we can make better choices about the food we eat, the cars we drive, the sources of our energy, how we dispose of our waste, and taking care of what industries we may be supporting. We can all be doomsayers, we can all resign ourselves to defeat and extinction and the collapse of society as we know it, perhaps even our own demise, that’s easy, but I don’t choose that. My favourite quote from the documentary was that it’s “better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”. I truly believe in that statement, and I know there are others who do, too. We are in a race against extinction and time, but we still have enough time on our side to change the course, and that is what I want to be a part of.

So, here’s to 2016, and making better choices for our planet and ourselves.

 

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.

 


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Cowspiracy: The Greatest Environmental Threat Hiding in Plain Sight?

I have been waiting a good deal of time to watch this documentary, having heard rumblings about it for months and months. When I saw the trailer, it seemed as though, like so many I’d already seen, that it would be informative and provocative, but what I imagined had nothing on the reality of it.

Since the release of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, everyone to some extent knows about climate change and even if they aren’t clear on the exact science, know that the planet is getting warmer and that we human beings are responsible. Generally when one is asked to point to a cause of climate change, they will say fossil fuel burning. The petrol burned in our cars, the oil and gas we burn to heat our homes, the coal we burn in our power plants, all of it is creating carbon dioxide emissions that increase the greenhouse effect, which in turn warms the Earth’s atmosphere, and a warmer atmosphere is a more violent one.

Whilst we can all point to fossil fuels, few know that cutting down forests increases emissions or general changes in land use. What might you ask drives such destruction? One would assume it’s to do with lumber but especially in places like the Amazon, the main driver of logging and rainforest destruction is not for timber but to open up land for cattle ranching and growing feed.

It’s not just what we do to facilitate animal agriculture, though, it’s the animals themselves. Methane is also a greenhouse gas and is produced in large quantities by the digestive processes of cattle. It is 22 to 100 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. This means that raising livestock contributes more to climate change than the whole transport sector at 18% versus only 13% for all cars, trains, planes, and shipping. A World Bank report puts the figure even higher, at 51%, when including the clear-cutting of forests for grazing, animal respiration, and the amount of waste they produce.

It would be bad enough if animal agriculture only significantly contributed to climate change, but that is definitely not the case. It is the main driver of deforestation, as I’ve previously mentioned, but it all drives habitat loss, species extinction, water depletion, and the formation of ocean dead zones. The original UN report that found it to be a greater emission source than transport also stated that it is major cause of resource consumption.

This is staggering. This is a profound realisation, that our demand for meat and dairy is fuelling climate change and every other major environmental crisis of our age. It also contributes to poverty and starvation, as the world has more than enough food grown to feed the world’s human population, but so much of that is diverted to animals that we then eat anyway, losing the majority of the nutritional value of the original crop.

Given all of this, why did it take this documentary to really bring it home for me? Why with all the environmental organisations that I follow am I only hearing about this issue now, let alone its significance? The movie answered that question for me, it’s too sensitive an issue to tackle.

Really? These environmental groups have no problem going after the fossil fuel industry, GMOs, loggers, poachers, whalers, industrial fishing operations, and yet the meat and dairy industry are not even mentioned. How is it that despite these reports that Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Oceana, Amazon Watch, Friends of the Earth, how come all of them aren’t up in arms about this issue and telling their members not to consume meat and dairy. Perhaps because they don’t want to lose their members.

After all, people who genuinely care about the environment, who are willing to sign petitions, picket the streets, commit civil disobedience, are totally going to be turned off the whole green thing if you tell them that their dietary choices are damaging the very thing they want to protect.

Personally, I think these groups grossly underestimate their members but in the end, I can only speak for myself. I tried almost complete veganism for a few months. It wasn’t a hardship and indeed, I found ways to really enjoy the food I was eating. We seem to forget that despite the Western diet being very heavy on meat and dairy that far more variety is found among plant-based foods. I’ve backtracked a bit since then, eating a diet that is 70-80% plant-based but still not consuming any dairy. However, this film has really convinced me that long-term, I should be thinking of moving back the other way again.

One person can’t change much and like Kip Andersen, the co-director of Cowspiracy, we can all get efficient light bulbs, turn off lights and appliances when they’re not in use, turn off our taps when brushing, drive less, and maybe that’ll make some difference. What I’ve come to realise is that I could do all these things, and they would amount to less than if I just chose a plant-based diet. That’s not to say that all the things you typically hear to do to be more green are for naught, they’re just less effective.

Imagine that we all did the most effective thing. Imagine we all collectively divested from meat and dairy, mostly if not completely and utterly. It’s hard to fathom the forests and wildernesses that would be spared destruction, the water that would be saved, the additional food we would have, the emissions cuts. We could create a better world with an agricultural system not based upon the consumptive industrial processes that we have in place today. However, we have to demand that.

This is where I think these organisations that should be championing diet as a means to protect the environment fall down. They are either afraid of backlash from their members, or, as was alluded to in the movie, may be taking hush money from the meat and dairy industry to keep their interests off their radar. I can’t speculate much on that. It would be quite dispiriting if it were true, akin to finding out that Oil Change International were taking money from TransCanada not to advocate against tar sands development.

Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that our food choices play a significant role in environmental destruction and social injustice. Can one really chow down on a Big Mac Burger, knowing that the cost of that meal in water, in emissions, in trees cut down, wildlife lost, and others going hungry is so high? I personally couldn’t, and I think many like me, having all the facts available to them, would feel the same.

So my message to Greenpeace, to Sierra Club, to Climate Reality, to 350.org, to all the environmental organisations is simply this, give your supporters a chance. I’m not asking you to shout from the rooftops “meat and dairy bad, you eat it, you bad”. All I’m saying is that it’s likely that your members are all intelligent, thoughtful people who when presented with the facts, will be able to make their own determination and respond accordingly. I don’t believe that even if they choose not to change their dietary choices that they will then withdraw their support for your organisation, simply because you told them something they didn’t particularly want to hear. These are people who believe in protecting animals and wild places, who believe that clean air and water should be a given, that our oceans should not be a dumping ground, that we should not consume our Earth, overwhelm its natural systems in a frenzy, leaving nothing for future generations.

Yet that is what our food choices demand that we do. We must clear more forest, we must use up every last drop of water, graze every acre, all the while creating huge quantities of waste and emissions that pollute our rivers and oceans and destabilise our climate. Presented with this, anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist, such as myself, has to act. Perhaps the leading environmental organisations who I and many others look to should hold themselves to at least that standard.

P.S. Watch Cowspiracy, I think it is one of the defining documentaries of our time, and the information presented should be everywhere, high and low. Let’s make it so!

Links:

http://www.cowspiracy.com/

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.

 

 

 


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Adrift in the Orwellian Haze: Part IV

(Image Source: Cagle)

Our Food System: Razing the Earth to Create Cheap Crap

We all enjoy our food. It tastes good, it feels good to eat it, to get the satisfaction of a hearty, flavourful meal. Ultimately, it sustains us. It provides us the energy and nutrients we need along with some of our fluid requirements. As we know from scenes on the news and charity adverts, a lack of food leads to suffering, malnutrition, and eventually death by starvation. With seven billion people on Earth and that number rising inexorably upward, it is essential that our food production systems meet demand and feed all those hungry mouths. Yet, somehow, despite the resources existing to feed everyone, it doesn’t happen. In the 21st century, people still go hungry, even in the industrialized world, and it is still one of the major issues of our time.

I will return to the issue of why hunger is a still a problem in the modern world but firstly, there is something we must recognize. Going totally without food is not the only way to starve. You can eat to your stomach’s capacity, until you cannot even contemplate putting another morsel in your mouth, and still you can be malnourished. That is the ironic situation in many Western countries today. People are eating food, lots of it, far more than they need, but it does not sustain them, as food should. That is because the highly refined, highly processed food-like products that we consume are nutrient deficient. Compared to the raw ingredients from which they were originally manufactured, they lack minerals, vitamins, enzymes, fibre, healthy fats, and many other beneficial factors.

Today, we eat things that look like food, smell like food, taste like food, but are not food. They are cheap facsimiles made from refined sugars, grains, oils, meats, and dairy products with a good pinch of salt, preservatives, flavourings, colourings, and other additives. These things provide an excess of calories, in the form of fats and carbohydrates mostly, and a heavy load on our livers and kidneys, as they try to process all the chemicals that came along with that caloric overload. The result of this diet is that we become obese, lethargic, sick, and eventually we die from overeating.

It is ironic that both chronic obesity and chronic starvation both exist in our world at the same time. If it were a case that food supply was based on resources then you would expect the former to happen in times of plenty and latter to occur in times of scarcity. The reality is that abundance in terms of food could exist on this Earth, and everyone could be fed a healthy, nourishing diet, and the over-consumptive diets of the West are one but not the only reason that that hasn’t occurred.

There is so much wrong with our current food system, from farm to market. Let’s begin with the fact that farms and markets how we all imagine them are ceasing to exist. The farmer who works the land with his own bare hands, drives a tractor around, and knows all of his animals is becoming a rarity. “Farms” these days operate on an industrial scale, huge complexes that treat animals like machinery (dairy animals and laying hens) and a mere resource (meat and poultry). In these places, animals can live out their entire hormone-hastened life cycles without ever seeing the light of day. I watched the documentary Food Inc. and was appalled by cases were thousands of hens were packed into small sheds without light or ventilation, left to wallow in their own droppings. A remember a scene where they would go in everyday and pick up the dead birds that hadn’t made it through the night. Yet, this anti-biotic pumped, hormone-fuelled animal that spent its life in darkness and filth will be slaughtered and served up as food.

Crop agriculture is not much better. Instead of a variety of crops, huge expanses of land are planted with monocultures, one strain of one species of crop that has performed favourably. These pesticide-laden plants are essentially a desert for biodiversity. All other plants are eliminated and so, too, is the entire ecosystem that would have existed there. In California for example, even the bees required to pollinate the almond crop have to be imported from across the US. This process of replanting the same crop over and over on the same land is also damaging to the very soil that supports those crops, depleting it of nutrients and leading to erosion.

In the end, the two industries’ destructive natures tie into each other, as much of the grain we grow is to feed the animals we eat. In the process of feeding that grain to animals, the nutritional value of the grain is mostly lost. If it were just fed to people directly then there would be enough to feed ten billion people. Think about that. Even without changing our actual agricultural practices, we have enough food right now to more than eliminate hunger. Yet we don’t because no one profits from what would be an entirely altruistic action, and we, in the West especially, demand meat, and lots of it.

We are losing the planet to these practices above all else. Agriculture, in its current industrialised form, contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and drives climate change. The run-off from industrial animal “farms” and the vast amounts of fertilizer we use on our crops all makes its way into our rivers, lakes, and ultimately our oceans where it causes eutrophication and “dead zones”. Increased demand for grazing land, and crop-land to feed those animals, leads to habitat destruction through changing land usage and deforestation. Ranching in the Amazon is a prime example of this. These all in turn lead to the extinction of species because their habitats have changed or have disappeared completely.

Yes, our demand for not only sustenance but luxury when it comes to food is driving all of this. Many of our other activities, including the burning of fossil fuels, manufacturing, transport, all can tie in directly and indirectly to producing food. All this monumental effort and most of what we produce is highly processed junk awash in chemicals, sugar, and salt. We are exposed to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, preservatives, artificial flavourings and colourings, stabilisers, and who knows what else with every morsel, and we keep coming back for more because in the brief moments that that food is in our mouths, the overwhelming levels of fat, sugar, and salt, along with half of those chemicals, convince us that this is the greatest bite ever, and so, too, will be the next one, and the next one, and so on. When it comes to the majority of what we purchase from supermarkets and fast food chains, the goal of giving us sustenance has been left behind in favour of empty luxury.

As I mentioned before, it is insanity that obesity and health problems related to these poor food choices can exist beside chronic hunger as major world problems. The one thing the two issues often have in common is malnourishment, one because the thousands of calories consumed in some Western diets provide little nutrition, and the other simply for insufficient intake of calories to provide nutrition.

Big Food and Big Ag have no problem with this arrangement.

We in the West have busy lives with little time to cook or make healthy food choices. Industry knows this and preys upon it. They produce the quick snacks, the packaged ready-made meals, the fast food, and we lap it all up because it takes one of the many pressures in our lives away from us. On top of that, instead of then at least providing semi-decent food, they instead attempt to make the production process as cheap and as efficient as possible. Therefore, we get burgers which aren’t actually all meat but mostly some form of filler, we get nuggets made of blended down chicken carcasses, and we get fries so infused with oil and salt that you wonder if there’s actually any potato in there.

This is becoming an accelerating problem, even in developing countries as they begin to industrialize and eat like the West, but do we really want to end world hunger with junk food?

It is largely the increasing demand for meat and dairy that is driving this health crisis and also the environmental degradation mentioned above. Sustaining domestic animals for production of dairy and for slaughter costs us a tremendous amount of resources in terms of water for the animals, feed for the animals, water for the crops to make that animal feed. It costs us in terms of energy, too, and therefore fossil fuels, as we invest it in the industrial facilities we keep animals in these days, the energy to slaughter and process these animals, to make and package the product, to make the packaging, to transport the product to the markets and restaurants, and finally to cook it. There’s probably multiple other processes and other things feeding into the overall scheme that I’m not thinking of but suffice it say, animal agriculture is both resource and energy intensive when compared to growing crops.

I am not vegan, and I am certainly not one of those people who behaves in a morally superior way towards those who have a typical Western diet. I have tried veganism, and it is workable. I give credit where credit is due to anyone who has sustained it. For personal reasons, I chose to remain at the paleo level where I eat a diet excluding dairy and most processed grains and oils and with small portions of meat and eggs. About 70-80% of the food I eat on any given day is plant-based. I try to choose local and organic options when I can.

Is my diet the most earth-friendly it could possibly be? No. Is it better than eating meat, dairy, and empty carbs at every meal in huge quantities? Yes. And on the health front, I do not deny myself things that fall outside my typical diet on occasions or meals out and such. After all, life is for living. Yet the whole “you only live once” argument can’t be taken to extremes. We have to face the fact that the food choices we make not only damage our personal health and well-being, but they also damage the overall health of the planet, and there are of course negative impacts on the economy in dealing with the resulting health crisis.

The only winners in the current paradigm are the food corporations. They charge us for cheap, crappy food that probably was only a fraction of that cost to make and hold no responsibility towards the lives their products damage and end. Yes, everyone has a choice whether or not to eat what they are selling, but under pressure to fit in meals somewhere in our schedules and lured by adverts promising speedy deliciousness, can we really be blamed for falling into the trap they have set time and time again?

These are corporations that preside over animal cruelty and environmental destruction on an epic scale, rivalling Big Energy even. They dominate our food system, squeezing out competition from smaller farm operations that provide more wholesome, unprocessed food. Yet the dominion over food that they possess is still not enough. Companies like Monsanto now seek to patent and control the very stuff of life, seeds. They have done this by genetically modifying certain crops and claiming a patent on the new version. Since this plant is meant to be superior to the original, farmers buy the seed.

By doing so, these companies have shifted power over food inexorably towards themselves, as farmers must obtain new seed each planting season rather than saving seed from their last crops as they have done since time immemorial. If they can eventually squeeze out conventional crops with their own product, who is to say that such companies couldn’t eventually hold a monopoly over corn or wheat or eventually, even genetically modified animals. Farmers are being trapped and even those who do not purchase patented seed can still face litigation if their crops get contaminated via cross-pollination with the GMOs.

This kind of injustice is growing ever more prevalent as the industry desperately attempts to maintain its stranglehold on the food markets. They have nothing to compel them to change their practices because we don’t demand better or choose better. I know it’s hard sometimes, but even if everybody cooked occasionally or ate a piece of fruit rather than a chocolate bar, these companies would feel the financial pinch. I, for one, am not satisfied to be a human lab rat in the experiments they are running with artificial additives, GMOs, anti-biotics, and all manner of pesticides that make it onto our plates. We have to begin to use our power as consumers to compel change. In this case in particular, voicing your opinion with your wallet might be just or more effective than shouting it from the rooftops, but that helps, too!

Links:

Stopping deforestation: Battle for the Amazon

Kenya: GMOs are about profits, not life

El Salvador Farmers Beat Monsanto’s Monopoly: Refusing GMO and Outperforming with Record Crop Yields

A Bigger Public Health Problem Than Hunger: The Global Obesity Threat

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.


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Helping the Planet through Diet

(Image Source: USDA)

Vegetarianism, Veganism, whichever lifestyle you follow, the commonly known reason that you are doing it is to save animals from cruel living conditions and horrible deaths. Make no mistake, that alone is more than enough reason to choose to go meat and/or dairy free. However, most people don’t realise there’s a lot more to be accomplished by these choices than saving the lives of farm animals. There are less direct but no less significant benefits to the health of our planet as a whole from choosing to be vegan or vegetarian. It all derives from the impact that the meat and dairy industries have on the environment. There are a good many to cover. A short list would be:

  1. River and lake algal blooms due to nutrient loading (Lake Erie last year is a prime example, http://tinyurl.com/kgbks29)
  2. Water depletion (e.g. it takes over 1’800 gallons of water to get a pound of beef, http://tinyurl.com/kgfhb74)
  3. Ocean Dead Zones (similar to the first point, ocean dead zones occur because of a combination of high nutrient levels and pollution entering ocean water via rivers or through direct human activities, de-oxygenating coastal waters, making them uninhabitable to most sea life. Most of the nutrient loading comes from farming and releases of effluent.)
  4. Deforestation (Most forest is cleared to make way for animal agriculture or crops meant to feed livestock. Brazil’s Amazon is a prime example. From 2000-2005, 70% of all deforestation in the Amazon was for the purpose of establishing cattle ranches, http://tinyurl.com/c6q7tt)
  5. Species Extinction (Given all the previous points, it goes without saying that animal agriculture is a primary driver of species loss through habitat destruction, and nearly all ecosystems are directly or indirectly affected by agricultural activities.)
  6. Climate Change (Animal agriculture is a carbon intensive process. Land usage changes to graze animals and grow their food produce CO2 emissions, as does the energy required to keep them alive, slaughter them, process them, and all the transport involved in all those steps. However, it doesn’t stop there. Animals respiration and the carbon-intensive medical treatments that millions of animals require every year are disputed but potentially huge contributors to GHG emissions. Animal agriculture also contributes to emissions of two other greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, which are 86 and 268 times more potent respectively than carbon dioxide, http://tinyurl.com/ljhml2w)

 

That’s a lot of environmental damage just to bring a steak to your dinner plate or to have the convenience of purchasing a burger from your fast-food restaurant. Most people, in fairness, aren’t aware of any of this. The fact remains that compassion for animals is the main driver behind people choosing to change their diets. I’ve personally seen videos of the kinds of cruelty that livestock are subjected to in industrial farm set-ups, and I can tell you that watching another living creature cry in pain and fear as it struggles for life tugs on the heartstrings a lot more than being told about the invisible gases they emit contributing to climate change. Still, as much as I don’t want to see animals harmed, the environment as a whole is my focus.

We have to consider what kind of world we’re going to leave to our children and grandchildren. A lot of them who are under ten now will be middle-aged by 2050, and I imagine they’ll curse us for the problems we leave them to solve. Our governments are slow to respond to these growing crises partly due to the inherent nature of our democratic systems and partly due to intense lobbying interests who would be affected negatively by any attempt to address the problems I mentioned above. That means the most immediate success can be achieved on the local and individual level. That means you, your choices can have a much greater impact than you think. What if I told you that being vegan would cut your carbon footprint more than giving up your car?

Okay, let’s be honest here. No one’s giving up meat and dairy just like that to be eco-friendly.

It is a huge lifestyle change that you can’t just dive right in to, and it is not easy to maintain. I, myself, am not a strict vegan. Though I avoid meat and dairy at home and when I’m eating out as much as possible, I’m not going to go hungry because there isn’t a vegan option on the party platter, or because there might be an animal product in the sauce on my takeaway veggie burger. It has to be done gradually, and it has to be sustainable. Let’s face it, though, there are people for whom veganism or even vegetarianism will never be legitimate options, and that’s okay, too. There are still dietary changes you can make to have a positive impact on the environment and even animal welfare. Here are some quick and easy ideas that are somewhat easier to maintain than a complete diet overhaul:

  1. Try having a meatless Monday, or any day of the week that suits. Even though you are not excluding meat from your diet, just eating less meat can still reduce all of the impacts mentioned above by decreasing demand for the product, which correspondingly reduces industry production. I started my mostly plant food-based diet by doing it just one day of the week, then two, and so on.
  2. Try reducing your red meat intake in favour of white meats like poultry, or you could go with fish. Whilst certainly not perfect, eating chicken is far better for the environment than eating beef. Chickens require less water, less feed, and less energy is invested during the course of their life cycle. Some people avoid all land-based livestock and depend on fish and other seafood. However, you have to be careful here, as they can be contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants they bioaccumulate in their bodies, and the fishing industry has probably as much to answer for in terms of damage to the environment as dairy and meat.
  3. If you can, buy organic and/or free range. This can be tricky, as the products are often more expensive, and the companies involved might just be labelling their product as such to appeal to concerned customers. Organic, of course, has to be certified but even then, it doesn’t speak to the how the animal lived, it just means the animal was fed organic feed and wasn’t drugged. Free range (chickens and other poultry) or grass-fed (cattle and other mammalian livestock) also just means the animals weren’t caged or penned and had a bit more room to roam, and possibly a more varied, natural diet. So getting what you’re looking for, which I imagine is animals who grew up on a wide open farm, eating grass, and who were happy out until they got shipped to the abattoir, requires some research on your part, and you might be best off going directly to local farmers or to farmers’ markets rather than going to a supermarket.

 

So, there you have it. Even these small fixes can have a positive impact but still, they require a little work, but nothing worthwhile is easy, and it is worth your time. I can say I feel a lot better knowing that I’ve made a change that has such a positive impact on the health of our planet, but it’s not just the planet’s health that benefits. Studies have shown a diet that involves significantly more plant foods than those derived from animals is better for your body, largely due to the negative impacts of excess animal protein and fat on our systems, which contribute to our risk factors for the two big killers in modern society, cancer and heart disease. There’s also evidence to support the fact that as hunter-gatherers, humans were often unsuccessful hunters and depended during lean times on plants to provide as much as 70% of their calories. So, plant-based diets are not only environmentally friendly, they are natural and far more healthy than eating mostly meat and dairy, especially in the form of highly processed products.

I think if you are truly concerned about animals and the environment, you can choose to eat less animal products. It’s a small sacrifice for a big return, for you and the Earth.

Links:

The Evolution of Diet

Reduce GHG Emissions

Health Benefits

Livestock’s Long Shadow

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.